Delhi High Court: In a case wherein petitions were filed under Section 12 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 to seek initiation of contempt proceedings against the respondents for wilful disobedience of the directions issued by the Division Bench of this Court, a Single Judge Bench of Rekha Palli, J.* opined that the defense taken by the respondents that there was no requirement to work out the incremental increase separately for each cluster, was wholly misconceived. Thus, the Court held that the respondents were guilty of Contempt of Court for wilfully disobeying the orders passed by the Division Bench of this Court.
The petitioners were providing private stage carriage services to the government under a cluster scheme, wherein all the clusters were a part of a network for providing stage carriage services for Delhi to ensure safe and comfortable travel to the commuters. For smooth operation of the scheme, the government entered into various similar concessionaire agreements with the petitioners and other concessionaires, who were required to provide the services of drivers and other staff in relation to operation and maintenance of buses in their respective clusters. The consideration under the concession agreements envisaged wages payable to the staff of the petitioners whose services were being utilized for these vehicles. Since the concession agreements envisaged wages payable to the staff, the agreement also contained a stipulation for amendment of the formula for payment of service rate per hour to the concessionaire in case of any “change in law”. Upon the minimum wages being enhanced pursuant to notifications dated 15-9-2016 and 3-11-2017, the petitioners sought amendment of the said formula and upon no action being taken by the government, they approached this Court by way of the present writ petitions.
Before the Division Bench, the petitioners stated that the quantification of the amount on which the petitioners had submitted their tenders was premised on a particular minimum wage payable to their employees, who were to serve for the operation of stage carriage service. Once there was an upward revision in these minimum wages, it was incumbent upon the government to make additional payments to the petitioners to make good this increases in the cost of providing stage carriage services on account of the enhancement of the minimum wages. The writ petitions were allowed by the Division Bench with the directions that “the respondents should effectuate necessary amendments in the formula envisaged in the Concessionaire Agreement regarding the amount payable taking adjustments and enhanced minimum wage, in terms of the notifications dated 15-9-2016 and 3-11-2017 and consequently increase the wages with effect from the date when the said notifications took effect, or giving due benefit to the petitioners in their monthly billing”. But being aggrieved by this decision, the respondents approached the Supreme Court by way of an SLP, which was dismissed as withdrawn with the liberty to the government to prefer a review petition before the Division Bench. The subsequent review petitions preferred by the government were rejected by the Division Bench and thereafter, SLP referred by the government was again dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Analysis, Law, and Decision
The Court relied on Anil Ratan Sarkar v. Hirak Ghosh, (2002) 4 SCC 21 wherein the Supreme Court emphasized that “in a case where two interpretations of an order were possible and there was doubt in the matter as regards to the wilful nature of the conduct, no contempt would lie”. Further, the Court relied on Dinesh Kumar Gupta v. United India Insurance Company Ltd., (2010) 12 SCC 770 (“Dinesh Kumar Gupta”), wherein the Supreme Court summarized the pre-conditions before a person could be held guilty of having committed civil contempt, (a) there must be a judgment or order or decree or direction or writ or other process of a Court; or an undertaking given to a Court; (b) the judgment, etc., must be of the Court and undertaking must have been given to a Court; (c) there must be a disobedience to such judgment, etc. or breach of such undertaking; and (d) the disobedience or breach, as the case may be, must be wilful. The Supreme Court also held that “if an order was capable of more than one interpretation giving rise to variety of consequences, non-compliance with the same cannot be held to be wilful disobedience of the order to make out a case of contempt entailing the serious consequence including imposition of punishment”. The Court also relied on All Bengal Excise Licensees’ Assn. v. Raghabendra Singh, (2007) 11 SCC 374, wherein the Supreme Court rejected the defence taken by the contemnors of there being a mistake in understanding the orders of the Court.
The Court stated that the issue for consideration before this Court was “whether the stand of the respondents could be said to be fair and bonafide or whether their defense that the directions issued by the Division Bench did not clearly state that the incremental increase in service rate per hour had to be taken separately for each cluster was a mere attempt to overreach the orders passed by this Court?”.
The Court concluded that “the Division Bench had, plainly, directed the respondents to amend the formula for calculating the amount payable to the concessionaires by taking into account the incremental increase of each cluster separately. The directions to the respondents were to calculate the amount payable to the concessionaires of the different clusters by taking into account the factual matrix of each cluster separately and it was only for this purpose that the Division Bench had directed the petitioners to furnish their calculations to them”. The Court opined that the directions were crystal clear, and the respondents were therefore expected to effectuate necessary amendments to the formula by working out the amount payable to each cluster individually. The Court further opined that the insistence of the respondents in applying the incremental increase of cluster 6 to all other clusters despite being well aware that the factual matrix of each cluster was different and in fact, even the initial service hour rate of each cluster was always different, left no manner of doubt that the disobedience on the part of the respondents was willful.
The Court thus, opined that in the present case all the four pre-conditions mentioned in Dinesh Kumar Gupta Case, for holding the respondents guilty of contempt were made out and the moonshine defense taken by the respondents that there was no requirement to work out the incremental increase separately for each cluster, was wholly misconceived and needs to be rejected. The Court observed that in the present case, the respondent, despite having repeatedly failed in their challenge to the order passed by the Division Bench were deliberately attempting to circumvent and undermine the unambiguous direction issued by the Division Bench and it was therefore, necessary to deal with the respondents with a heavy hand.
The Court held that the respondents were guilty of Contempt of Court for wilfully disobeying the orders passed by the Division Bench of this Court.
The matter would next be listed on 14-7-2023.
[Antony Road Transport Solution (P) Ltd. v. Varsha Joshi, 2023 SCC OnLine Del 2266, decided on 21-4-2023]
Advocates who appeared in this case:
For the Petitioner: Sushil Dutt Salwan, Senior Advocate; Aditya Garg, Tanmaya Mehta and Ankit Virmani, Advocate;
For the Respondents: Avishkar Singhvi, Naved Ahmed and Vivek Kumar, Advocates.
*Judgment authored by: Justice Rekha Palli